What a Design Thinking Coach does and why and when you need one
Design Thinking is one of the most popular innovation approaches worldwide. Successfully established and professionally applied, it enables the user-centered development of innovative products and services. This requires an enabler who can successfully accompany and professionally moderate the Design Thinking process in companies and projects: the Design Thinking coach. They help individuals and teams to grow and learn and move to design-led innovation. Read this article to find out more about the work of Design Thinking coaches, the qualities required and how to become one.
Let’s start with the basics: What is Design Thinking?
To give some context, I’d like to start with a short recap on Design Thinking itself. You might want to jump ahead if you are already familiar with it.
Design Thinking is one of the most effective approaches for solving complex problems and developing innovative solutions. It is currently widely used in many different industries, to solve challenges in the context of the digital transformation of a company. The underlying idea is based on the way designers work, empathizing with the end user to discover their true needs. Design Thinking is a method, a set of principles, a mindset and a process all in one using a variety of supporting tools.
What are the Design Thinking principles?
Design Thinking is based on the principles of desirability, feasibility, and viability. Those three criteria have to be met, to build a truly innovative product or service.
- A desirable solution that your customer really wants or needs
- A feasible solution that you can develop in the near future with your current capabilities
- A viable solution that makes sense from a business model perspective
The area where all of these three principles intersect is also called the “sweet spot of innovation”.
What are the 3 most important elements of Design Thinking?
Design Thinking is based on three important elements: people, process, and place.
People: A Design Thinking team should be built with the right mix of skills, mindsets, and competencies, that is why these teams are also called multidisciplinary. The individual team members themselves are referred to as T-shaped: the vertical letter part of the “T” stands for outstanding expertise in a particular discipline. The horizontal letter part symbolizes broad and interdisciplinary knowledge.
Process: There are many different versions of the process, but they usually include the following steps: explore, discover, design, and deliver. In all process steps, the user focus is key. The process is highly iterative, that means the team learns step-by-step as they come closer to an ideal solution and might go through the process steps several times. During the whole process, visualization is key. Ideas are often visualized in the form of sketches, storyboards about user experiences or prototypes. Check out my blog articles on storyboarding and sketchnoting if you are interested.
Place: For Design Thinking activities, an environment that encourages collaboration and sparks ideas is key. Therefore, a flexible room concept with plenty of space is preferred: high tables and chairs, whiteboards, Post-it notes and a large selection of materials should be available for the quick creation of prototypes.
What is the job of a Design Thinking coach?
A Design Thinking coach enables teams or organizations to effectively apply the Design Thinking principles, methods, and mindset. They can support the following projects and goals:
Coaching: Guiding product and project teams in projects by practicing Design Thinking
A Design Thinking Coach guides and gives full support in human-centered design to project teams with the goal to find innovative solutions for challenging problems. He drives the team towards a positive outcome, always reminding them of the end-user and underlying needs. He is also responsible for encouraging them to find new directions to explore. In this setting, it is less important to teach Design Thinking, but more about executing it.
Awareness: Helping others to understand the Design Thinking method
In a Design Thinking awareness session, the coach can share the methodology along with his knowledge and experiences. Usually, the participants work on an exemplary case and fast-forward through the process. After the session, the understand what Design Thinking is and how it can be applied.
Training: Teaching the Design Thinking process with practical examples
In order to scale Design Thinking in an organization, it can become necessary for a Design Thinking coach to educate other coaches. This is usually done in a multi-day training format, mixing theory and hand-on practice. It includes reflecting what has happened and why it has happened as well as intensive coach feedback. Therefore, extensive experience in Design Thinking is a must. Of course, it is also possible to attend publicly available trainings or find a Design Thinking coach to conduct an inhouse training.
Facilitation: Conducting different innovation formats
In addition to coaching project teams, the Design Thinking coach can also facilitate other innovation formats, for example Design Thinking workshops, hackathons, and design sprints. It is important, to first set the goal and preferred outcome, and then decide for a suitable format. It is also advisable to think about a possible follow-up to make sure those information formats do not end in talk. The main tasks of the coach include setting up the workshop, to designing agendas and activities, and facilitating the teams.
Skills and Mindset: what makes a good Design Thinking Coach?
In addition to a profound knowledge of the Design Thinking process and a broad variety of methods to apply, a Design Thinking coach needs several qualities for successfully facilitating people through their Design Thinking Journey.
Design Thinking Coaches are…
- … good at communicating. They practice empathy and have a good understanding of the group dynamics as well as individual roles, goals, and moods.
- … motivated and eager to share their knowledge and experience with others.
- … open and flexible. It is not about accurately executing on the steps of the Design Thinking process, but to reach an outcome and pick up people where they are.
- …. sensitive. They understand when a team needs to discuss, and they need to hold back. But they also know when they need to intervene and stop a discussion, so that the team can move forward.
- … positive and motivating. They encourage individuals to step out of their comfort zone, get active and build on the ideas of others.
How do you become a Design Thinking coach? Is there a coach certification?
Design Thinking methodology and mindset have become an integral part of the everyday work of many companies to foster innovation and creative energy. With this demand growing, also the number of education programs shoot up like mushrooms. They are offered onsite or virtually, duration ranges from one hour to twelve weeks, and so do the prices. So how to choose the right vendor? As is often the case: it depends. It depends on you and your needs. Are you a newcomer or did you already gain some experience in Design Thinking? How much time can you spend? And how much money? So you will need to do some research to find the right education program for you. The same is true for certification. There is not THE one and only certificate, although some vendors offer it. A critical look is appropriate. In the German speaking market, TÜV and IHK certifications are available.
How can your company benefit from the role of a Design Thinking coach?
Many business problems or challenges are very complex and hard to understand. And the more complex they are, the harder it gets to solve them with a team. Design Thinking can be one way to approach these problems: understanding the problems, define needs and challenge the status quo, research and observe and developing prototypes. A Design Thinking coach can help to guide and facilitate this process.
However, a Design Thinking coach should not be mistaken for an Innovation Manager who manages and organizes the whole innovation process. An Innovation Manager discovers, identifies and evaluates innovation ideas, manages an internal and external innovation ecosystem and continuously improves the company’s internal innovation management. If you want to learn more about the work of an Innovation Manager, check out this article.
DOs and DON’Ts for Design Thinking coaches
DO give instructions on how the team will work together
“Grab your sticky notes and pens and let’s put your ideas on the whiteboard”
DON’T read out the instructions to the group.
DO make process decisions and guide the group
“Split into two groups and come up with 10 ideas each”
DON’T put the choices to the group and ask them to decide
DO invite people to act in ways that will lead to a great outcome
“Can you put a few more words on that sticky note, so we’ll remember your idea later?”
DON’T tell people they are doing it wrong
DO work first, discuss and reflect afterwards
“Let just try it and see what happens, then we can talk about our experience.”
DON’T let the team argue and talk instead of doing
DO make a safe space for creativity be encouraging wild ideas
“That’s great. More like that one.”
DON’T let the team discuss and judge ideas during brainstorming
Free tools for Design Thinking coaches
Check out these free resources to help you coaching Design Thinking:
- Innovation Toolkit Apphaus: a toolkit that helps to practice human-centered innovation step by step. It does not only include methods, but also covers the aspects people, place, leadership, and technology.
- Stanford Design Thinking Bootleg: a set of tools and methods that can be applied throughout the different Design Thinking Phases. In addition to method descriptions, it also includes how-tos.
- Mural: a great tool to conduct online Design Thinking sessions. Make sure to check out their pre-built templates for various Design Thinking methods.
Design Thinking Coaches at SAP
The Hasso-Platter-Institute in Potsdam Germany is one of the most famous Design Thinking institutes worldwide. No surprise the SAP founder also brought the mindset and methods to SAP. To date, the SAP Design Thinking community has over 4,000 members who practice, connect, and discuss Design Thinking. Several hundred of them are coaches.
The Design Thinking coach education at SAP is two-part: practice on the job and attend the coach curriculum. This is a cohort-based learning experience that consists of 10 days virtual in-person training camps, accompanied by check-in sessions, peer group learning, and mentoring. After the completion of this training, one is a Design Thinking Junior Coach. Through coaching experience and further in-depth method masterclass, one can become a Design Thinking Senior Coach. However, coaching levels should not be taken too seriously. They simply give an idea about the experience level of a Design Thinking Coach.
A Design Thinking coach can guide and facilitate interdisciplinary teams in complex innovation projects. They act as advocates for the user and customer and thus ensure a consistent focus on user and customer needs. They can also plan and execute other innovation formats, like Design Thinking sprints or Hackathons. However, the work should not be mixed up with an Innovation Manager, who oversees innovation on a more holistic and company-wide level.
What is your experience? Did you already work with a Design Thinking Coach or are you even one yourself? Let me know in the comments!
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